What will David Cameron's legacy be?

Written by
Tom Smith

14 Jul 2016

14 Jul 2016 • by Tom Smith

A lasting legacy?

David Cameron cut a triumphant figure at his last Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, sharing some jokes, setting out his achievements and receiving glowing tributes from veterans such as Ken Clarke. Brexit will count as his defining legacy for the future of the UK but he can claim some measure of success in public sector reform, from apprenticeships to keeping the NHS running (just).

Journalists and commentators will pore over his policy legacy and compare in minute detail how this compares to Theresa May’s government. What may end up being the starker contrast is the new PM’s managerial style. Cameron’s history here is one of stability. He was loathe to move Ministers from their jobs if it could be helped, allowing them to gain a firm grasp of their portfolios and experience of how to best manage their civil servants, the press and relevant interest groups. This compares to the frequent ministerial reshuffles seen at the end of the last Labour administration, which saw policy development pass more into the hands of the civil service.  

Cameron’s lesson here is that stability breeds results. He often resisted the clamour from the press to sack ministers and his relatively stable top team enabled him to effectively manage difficult political waters through Coalition Government and then a slim majority in the Commons after 2015. For Ministers this meant that they could focus on the long term, ending the desire to shape policy around making headlines in the near term. David Willetts, for example, served for over four years under Cameron as Universities Minister, where he was able to put in place long term reforms for the sector while navigating the controversial tuition fee increase.

How did Cameron lead?

Cameron’s other legacy is his laid back management style, which has arguably had more mixed results. He has often been seen as a chairman rather than chief executive of the Government, allowing the component parts of the public sector the autonomy and discretion to manage services as they saw fit. This was a sharp move away from the micromanagement endemic under Gordon Brown – a trend that often had severe negative implications. Cameron’s more strategic, relaxed style was complemented by a more active role for George Osborne as Chancellor. The pitfall for Cameron here was that the power he delegated actually created a power vacuum where he should have been, a space that was gladly filled by the senior officials of the Treasury.  

There were two other unintended consequences of his hands off approach. In some instances policy projects simply did not work as there was insufficient coordination between government departments. Flagship programmes such as Universal Credit or the Apprenticeship Levy faced delays, uncertainty and backtracking as officials felt their way through an obscured decision making landscape. At the other extreme, policy decisions faced being determined by power struggles between Ministers. Senior figures such as Michael Gove, Theresa May and George Osborne all used their own departments to intervene in the policy decisions of others; Osborne’s shaping of NHS policy through the Treasury being the prime example. For Cameron, all of this meant that policy did not necessarily end up looking as he envisaged. He may have been able to avoid the reputational damage this infers but the uncertainty in outcomes that his management style entailed frequently robbed him of any strategic control over his projects and therefore control over his own legacy.